By Crystal Chen
2008 J. Watumull Scholar
M.A. Student, Asian Studies
I went to India under the support of the J. Watumull Scholarship, with the goal of shooting a documentary on the subject of Hindi cinema. I returned not only having shot a documentary, but also having shot a short film, worked on a professional film production, learned a great deal of Hindi and a little Marathi, and having made wonderful connections with many of India’s future filmmakers.
My first month in India was spent participating in the India Study Abroad Center’s Film and Media Studies Program. In the first week, I was able to meet and interview a number of active, working professionals in the industry, including actors, directors, editors, and producers. Each interview gave me a clearer understanding of the Hindi film industry from the Indian filmmakers’ perspective as well as a better idea of how the industry worked on a practical level. Most notably, I was able to speak to Jagmohan Mundra, director of Provoked and Shoot on Sight, Sudipto Chattopadhyay, director of Pankh, and Hansel Mehta, director of Woodstock Villa. The next week was focused on observing professional film shoots. Having participated in a number of Academy for Creative Media (ACM) student productions as well as several Chinese/American co-productions, I immediately noticed the differences between Indian productions and American productions. However, it wasn’t until working briefly as an Assistant Director for a local company later on, that I was able to understand the Indian filmmaking system more deeply. On week three, we were given extensive tours of the top post-production facilities in Bombay, namely Prime Focus, Adlabs, and Pixion, all of whom were working on films whose posters were beginning to appear all over billboards in the city. The last two weeks were spent putting together a short narrative film for the program. After writing the script, I intentionally assembled an Indian cast and crew to get a feel for how my own documentary would be made. I soon discovered that it is one thing to watch an Indian film being shot, and an entirely different thing being the director of one! The experience for me was something akin to a crash course in cross-cultural differences, but there is no doubt that I learned a great deal from shooting that short piece. My thanks especially goes to the people at White Feather Films, who helped with pre-production and production of the short.
With the friends in the industry that I had made, I spent my free time watching a number of new releases in the city’s multiplexes, which were quite different from the films being exported to the international “Bollywood” audience. Independently, I also had the opportunity to experience a Bombay film premiere and had the honor of meeting two actors I really admired, Anupam and Kirron Kher.
Once work on my documentary began in earnest, I realized from initial interviews with Tibetans that my original subject required a time frame of about four months to shoot authentically, while I had roughly half of that time remaining. My producer, Arjun Bagga, helped me re-think and revise the documentary to take advantage of the contacts and footage I had already made and collected in Bombay. I spent the subsequent weeks scheduling interviews, finalizing my outline and shotlist, and getting more footage on Hollywood plagiarism in Bollywood. I was aided greatly in my efforts by the production company for whom I had briefly worked, Guerilla Flicks, as well as my production manager, Vishal Tyagi. The task of post-production now lies ahead.
As an aside, several interviews I had scheduled for the end of November and early December were never taped as a result of the Mumbai attacks. The entire city was turned upside down as rumors spread here and there; many people stayed inside or just stayed away from the city altogether. Not wanting to take everyone’s advice to stay inside, I interviewed people on the streets around my neighborhood to get their thoughts on what was occurring. Perhaps that footage will be useful one day in the future.
I am deeply grateful for being given the opportunity to understand and document on Hindi cinema by going into the heart of the industry itself. This trip marked the beginning of many exciting future film projects and collaborations in India for me. All of this was made possible by the J. Watumull Scholarship for the Study of India.
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